Writing – How Hard Can It Be?

I am pleased and honoured to have been asked to contribute to the lovely Helen Hollick’s Tuesday Talk on her blog.

If there’s anything you want to know about Arthurian England or Pirates, Helen is the lady to ask. She is the author of King Arthur: The Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy, The Sea Witch Voyages Series and more recently Amberley Press have published her non-fiction book The Truth and the Tales – Pirates.

All her books can be found at www.helenhollick.net

She is also incredibly brave and generous in letting a complete unknown loose on her blog.

Follow the link to read what yours truly had to say about the rumblings of an embryonic writing career.

https://ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.fr/2017/06/writing-fictionwell-how-hard-can-it-be.html

 

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Show Don’t Tell

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I spent last week back in England as a witness in a dispute over a right of way to the property I used to live in some thirty years ago. Given a choice between having a tooth pulled out and appearing as a witness I think, in future, I would opt for the visit to the dentist.

I had recently read “The Emotion Thesaurus” by Angela Ackerman and Becca Pulgisi  in an attempt to cure myself of the habit of infecting my writing with bland adjectives – of telling “he was angry”, rather than showing. So this experience provided me with an opportunity to observe and watch for cues – what poker players call “tells”, as to how each witness was feeling, all set within  the context of the courtroom.

The following are some of the notes I made on these lines during the proceedings. But first a brief description of the courtroom to give you some context.

Square room, bland cream and grey décor; wooden chairs set out with an aisle between them – protagonists  to the left, antagonists to the right. As we trooped into the courtroom, the court usher bent forward and quietly asked each of us “Appellant or Objector? Take your seat on the right/left.” I couldn’t help but think of the scene from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” – “Crucifixion, one cross each, on the right.”

One thing that could not be ignored in the room was the dais with the long bench behind which the judge sat in solitary splendour. Raised up above where we minions were seated it said, unequivocally to us – control, power, authority, I’m in charge.

Okay so on to the witnesses. I’ve given just three examples from my notes. They all relate to witnesses for the protagonists whom the counsel for the antagonists was cross-examining.

Witness One

Male, early fifties, the only male witness wearing a suit and tie. Took the oath in a steady, clear voice. Chose to stand rather than sit to give evidence; very upright, shoulders back. Listening to counsel’s questions he cocked his head slightly to one side, then straightened up again. Long, long pauses between question and his response.

My thoughts: calm, unruffled by situation. Did the “head cock” mean he was listening carefully? Perhaps he is slightly deaf? Did long pauses before responding mean he was choosing his words carefully; an unwillingness to answer; concocting a porky?

Witness Two

Female; early sixties; very chic. Strode to the witness stand; shoes squeaked on lino floor. Hands trembled a little as she held the paper on which the oath was printed; her voice quavered over a few words. Gave evidence standing up.  Voice steadied as she gave her testimony. When challenged hard by counsel a faint pink flush spread up her neck, voice trembled again. Played with a necklace she was wearing as she spoke.

My thoughts: nervous to start with but steadied herself. However, perhaps she was shivering and a bit cold? The necklace twisting – sign of nerves or fidgety and a tad impatient? The flush and wobbly voice – was she flustered; getting angry; embarrassed?

Witness Three

Female; late forties; smart/casual. Took a couple of visible deep breaths before reading oath. Gave evidence seated. Only witness to check, when asked, that the written statement previously provided was hers and that all the pages were present when given to her. When dealing with challenges by counsel  her voice dropped a tone and a Yorkshire brogue became more apparent. Sounded abrupt,  a little brusque but very definite about her evidence. Made good eye contact with judge rather than counsel when giving answers. Gestured with hands quite a bit.

My Thoughts: No-nonsense person. Meticulous? Confident?  Hostile towards counsel? Used the time to look through her written statement as a means of steadying herself?

So, as a writer what did I learn from all this?

  1. It reinforced something I’ve always known – that one swallow doesn’t make a summer. That is, to show emotions through body language we need to have a cluster of cues rather than just one and context is everything.
  2. It is possible to be sneaky and use a character’s body language to mask or mislead. I learned afterwards for example that Witness Two was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease which caused her hands/voice to tremble.
  3. The observation and interpretation of body language as an indicator of emotions is highly subjective.Would readers have the same interpretation?
  4. I would hate to be called for jury service!

 

So tell me, what would you have made of the three examples above?

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The Desperate DoZen

Only twelve desperate days to go before the BIG MOVE. I wish I could say I was in a state of grace and serenity as I glide from my English life to my new French one.  Did I say glide – I mean stagger, lurch and stumble.  The awesome bureaucratic machine that is French administration with its insatiable appetite for papers (preferably bearing the expensive insignia of a notaire or English solicitor) and requests for documents that are currently unobtainable, has already given me a couple of hors d’oeuvres to swallow. I need to open a bank account? I need a utility bill to do this. I can’t have a utility bill until I’m sent one. When will that be? Oh a couple of months and then I must pay by cheque. But I haven’t a bank account. Open one. Need a utility bill. Soooooper.

Still it’ll give me the opportunity to practise for my Zen mastership.

Actually so much is happening at once that I do need that inner calm. My local history book “Close to the Edge” is completed, edited and just awaiting a few permissions for some of the older photos. One of the publishers I approached is making all the right noises but is still havering so I’m looking again at self-publishing, Print on Demand and all that jazz. If anyone who reads this has any experience of using Lightning Source I’d be really pleased to hear from them. The idea of marketing a book from 1000 miles away seems a little daunting but since I’ve got to come back to the UK for day job work every now and again, I’m sure it’s possible.

In the meantime I’m moving on to my next keep-me-in-Blanquette (fizzy wine, local to my new home to those that don’t know) book. I enjoy writing these short quirky history books. My original idea was to develop them alongside fiction that I want to write to help pay the bills. It’s a bit of a cop out in some ways because the non-fiction is easier to write and sell, although not in huge quantities. But I do think that maybe I’m avoiding something here. My track record in fiction writing is limited to a few short stories and a radio play.  Lurking in a drawer I have four half-finished novels where I’ve run out of steam or gotten a bit bored with them. Basically I think I’m a coward and won’t face up to the possibility that I’m a crap fiction writer. My head teems with ideas and I’m pretty good at visualising scenes and situations; dialogue runs well for me too. I often walk on the beach, in character as it were, creating pretty good dialogue (to the amusement of many a dog walker) but the minute I try to write it all down, pouf! The gremlins that live in the dust balls under the bed steal it all away whilst I’m asleep.

So do I take the easy road and conjure up a few more eclectic histories or do I bite the bullet and finish off one of the four unfinished opusses (yes, pedants, I know it’s not the plural of opus)? Perhaps the change of scene will do the trick. There again, perhaps the warm spring airs, the lure of the mountains and the scent of the garrigue will do for me entirely.

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A little peep at the new des.res.